Click to toggle navigation menu.


ExpertBeacon Logo

Teach kids with social learning challenges to become independent

When kids are in preschool, there are tons of books, parent support groups and playgroups. But when kids get older, all of that disappears. This seems to happen during some of the most difficult parenting years when parents have the fewest networks and support systems. And through this process, children are magically supposed to evolve from kids to adults.

To teach children an increasing sense of independence, parents must begin letting go of their advice, directions and wisdom--and enter into a conversation where they encourage kids to take on their own thinking and problem-solving. This means saying things such as, “What are you going to do about it?" rather than, “This is what you should do about it.”

For kids with social learning challenges, understanding independence happens in a slower way—no matter how high their IQ. These individuals tend to need support within every environment.

But teaching children with social learning challenges can be trying for parents. Most of us grow up with an innate social awareness that develops on its own as we age and go through experiences with others. It can seem foreign to stop and think about everything—and even more foreign to figure out how to teach abstract social concepts to children without that innate social brain processing.

As a result, it is common for many of these parents to wonder, how can I successfully teach my child with social learning challenges to become an independent adult?


Do begin early

Don’t wait until the legal age of the school’s transition plan to start transitioning your child into increasing responsibility and independence.

Kids will not willingly go along with this plan to do more, so be sure to set an expectation and reward small steps towards the accomplishment. Don’t over-focus on the sneer on their face or the less than complimentary words they may say. Pick your battles carefully. Subtly praise any step towards being a more responsible member of the family. Withhold treats, such as video games or cell phones, if kids are not trying to be a reasonable member of the house. To give in to stormy ways is to reinforce the cloud hanging over your house.

Do recognize that the adult world is unaccommodating

The adult world is unaccommodating. This is a fact that is difficult to face for everyone, but is particularly so when special education teams have tried to serve kids by accommodating to their disability. Prevent the IEP team and yourself from making decisions that always keep your child comfortable and in control of what he/she wants to do. As parents of young kids, we work to keep our kids comfortable. But now we must work to ensure that our kids are learning to be comfortable with the fact that the world does not always offer comfortable options.

Do teach problem-solving techniques

Problem-solving is about finding the least painful option, not the one that causes no pain. Problem solving often does not actually solve the problem. Assure you child, “Yes, you hate the teacher, but you must learn to deal with it. You will hate your boss one day." Parents then need to make sure they don’t intervene to try and solve their child’s problem for him or her.

When we identify a child with a disability, there is a tendency to make the child’s disability everyone else’s problem. But by the time the child graduates from school, it is totally his/her challenge to deal with mostly on their own.

While there will be some special people to reach out and continue to help, especially while they are in their young 20’s, the game has changed significantly. Our kids are expected to do much more for themselves the year after they graduate from high school, compared to the year before, when they were in high school. Plan for this ahead of time.

Do discuss your own experiences with your children

Talk to your children about your own experiences and what you know yourself. Your lessons of how to be a more effective adult continue to be learned across your life. Help them to recognize that the process of learning about being a citizen of the world is not like graduating from high school. There is no diploma and it never ends. However, a growing sense of maturity is something to be very proud of.


Do not allow yourself to burn out

Begin teaching independence at the age of 13, 14 and 15 years. Parents may be happy to drive their child to high school, but they no longer want to drive their child to college or to a job.

While your children likely won’t be ready to fly solo by the time they graduate from high school, they will be more on their way and slowly be able to handle the growing pressures of having to do more for themselves—even if they don’t want to.

Keep in mind that this can be a very slow process. Because it does not happen overnight, pacing yourself is critical.

Do not confuse loving your child with doing things for your child

The more you love your kids, the more you must let them figure things out for themselves, learn to ask the questions they need to ask to locate the information, or teach them to find the answer from someone other than a parent. Problem-solving is vital.

Do not forget to educate kids about their accomplishments

Children’s self-esteem is born from the recognition of their own accomplishments and not just from being smart or being told they are wonderful. Show them how to appreciate feeling good about the things they can do in their community. Highlight the fact that these things are just as important as getting good grades. The world has a lot of smart people in it. What the adult world really celebrates are people who can figure out how to work as a member of society, which means working well with other people.

Do not overlook the need to seek professional help

If you think your child’s challenges are unmanageable or his/her mood is extremely dark, visit a psychologist or counselor to seek an assessment and guidance about how to help with possible mental health challenges, such as depression and/or anxiety. These may need to be addressed before adding more pressure during a confusing period of development.

Jumping cartoon

Being social is an everywhere skill. Whether the setting is at home, at school or in the community, we are constantly using our social sense to figure out how to be around others. Some of us excel at this, while others struggle with social abilities. Individuals with social learning challenges tend to need support within every single environment. And parents must understand how to provide this support to help their kids achieve success.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: © Rido -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Michelle Garcia WinnerFounder of Social Thinking® and a Speech Language Pathologist

Michelle Garcia Winner is the founder of Social Thinking® which specializes in developing treatment models and specific strategies for helping persons with social cognitive learning challenges. She runs and works in her small clinic; has authore...

View Full Profile